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The Best Things in Life is a book authored by Thomas Hurka, the Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Studies, at the University of Toronto. At the start of the book's "Introduction", Hurka explains that the book is about the philosophical question of what makes a choice right. Hurka explains further, in the Introduction, that the question of what by itself makes our lives worth living will be explored in the book, particularly by looking at leading candidates for human value as they appear in the twenty-first century. Moreover, Hurka asserts that he will defend two claims: one claim being that there are many (not just one) ultimate goods; and the other claim is that there isn't a single best human life, but many kinds of good life. In Hurka's judgment, not only are there many ultimate goods, there may be many ways of achieving a given one.
The substantive ocean of philosophical discourse expands to eight chapters. And throughout the ocean of the text, a powerful current of philosophical discussion flows powerfully.
In substance, and congruently in style, the book has been composed in philosophically esoteric fashion.
Structurally, at the end of the respective chapters, there is a "Further Readings" structural section, pithily drawing readers' attention to substantively germane reading materials.
And, in a "Bibliography", following the text, Hurka gives citations, alphabetized by author last name, for reading materials tethered securely to the book's substance.
Eclectically ranging snippets, in the form of quotes, populate the body of the book in substantively relevant and enlivening fashion.
And some "Figures" embellish the text didactically.
Notably, across the length and breadth of the text, there is contextually pertinent, and critically expert, examination, by Hurka, of the thinking of multitudinous great thinkers.
Here and there, bits and pieces of biographical material, culled anecdotally from Hurka's life, contribute to the forming of the textual composition.
Hurka is a very powerful intellectual writer; and, from start to finish, Hurka advances his particular views and opinions with very potent intellectual force.
Peering through his powerful intellectual microscope, Hurka, in Chapter 1, focuses sharply on feeling good. Hurka observes, thematically, that feeling good is good, and feeling bad is bad. Four types of good feeling are observed, intellectually, by Hurka. In intellectually observing different types of good feeling, Hurka sights a division between pleasures that aren't "about" something, and ones that are. A second sighted division concerns how extended or broad one's pleasure is. Hurka teaches that, though the four types of pleasure differ, there are also connections between them. Hurka teaches further that being happy in one way tends to make one happy in others, just as sadness breeds more sadness.
As Chapter 2 commences, Hurka raises the question of how do you start to get good feelings? In Hurka's expert opinion, improving one's level of happiness usually is very difficult. The most obvious way to feel good, in Hurka's view, is to give oneself physical pleasures. But, according to Hurka, physical pleasures, of the types of pleasure, do the least to promote other pleasures; and they tend to be short-lived.
Much more promising, in Hurka's judgment, is a good mood, as it does a lot to promote other pleasures, and can last a long time. But Hurka opines that improving one's mood is much harder than giving oneself a physical pleasure. Life satisfaction, as a type of pleasure, garners expertly discerning comment. Hurka discourses that, like one's overall mood, it is very hard to improve one's life satisfaction.
Readers' attention is focused also, by Hurka, on enjoyment. The view of Hurka is that enjoyment isn't as hard to give oneself as other types of pleasure. Also, in Chapter 2, Hurka expounds, with characteristic instructiveness, on the "paradox of hedonism".
Various views about pleasure and pain are described by Hurka, in philosophically abstruse fashion, in Chapter 3. And readers learn, in this chapter, that a limit on the importance of pleasure concerns its location in time. Hurka teaches, in this regard, that people care less about pleasures and pains in their past. Ethical hedonism and psychological hedonism also garner the discerning attention of Hurka. The roving eyes of Hurka further sight mindless pleasures, which, as Hurka explains, are ones that, though not morally vicious, don't involve anything else that may have value.
In Chapter 4, Hurka focuses sharply on knowledge. There is instructive discourse relating to knowledge of the outside world. Likewise, Hurka discourses instructively about one's relation to things in the world. Another category of knowledge drawing Hurka's attention is knowledge of one's inner states: one's feelings, thoughts, and character traits. As evaluated bluntly by Hurka, self-knowledge has neither the generality of scientific knowledge, nor the extra importance of knowing one's place in the world. As the chapter nears its end, Hurka discourses, as well, about moral knowledge.
As Chapter 5 commences, Hurka asserts forthrightly that the second good of connection to reality is achievement. Hurka teaches that achievement often has instrumental value; and also, that not all achievements have equal value. According to Hurka, the goals most worth achieving are the most general. Two senses of "general" are explained by Hurka. Hurka discourses that achievements have to be challenging; and the more challenging, the better. An aspect of a good life, in Hurka's view, is that you make it yourself: you determine its contours and contents, rather than having them forced upon you.
Virtue and vice are scrutinized, carefully, in Chapter 6. Exhibiting characteristic pensiveness, Hurka pensively studies the idea that attitudes of loving good and hating evil are virtuous, and their contraries vicious. Readers learn that there are both "moralized" and "simply emotional" forms of virtue; and an ideal person will have both. The variety of vices falls within the intellectual ken of Hurka. Discussion, in this regard, ranges to simple vices, vices of indifference, and also to vices of disproportion.
Love and friendship are on centerstage, substantively, in penultimate Chapter 7. Adding substantive flesh to the bones of the question of what makes love so valuable, Hurka discourses that, most important, love is where you are most virtuous. As stated bluntly by Hurka, love can hurt and it can harm, but, for most people, love's glories are worth the gamble. Hurka teaches that, while we love people partly for qualities others may share, we love them also as individuals. Hurka comments thoughtfully on loving someone for historical qualities. And Hurka discourse, insightfully, that love changes inevitably through time; at its best, in ways that preserve and enhance its value. Musing insightfully, Hurka muses that, when you love someone, it is for who the person is, and what the person has done; if the person, or the person's history with you, changes enough, your love may, and sometimes should, die.
As concluding Chapter 8 begins, Hurka writes that there isn't one life that's best for everyone, but many different good lives suited to different people's talents and situation. Hurka expounds on well-roundedness, as a way to organize one's life. Noting that a benefit of medical science has been the extension of the human life span, Hurka ponders the issue of whether added years, if they involve limited pleasure, minimal activity, and significantly reduced understanding, make one's life better? Hurka comments that, the most important thing about the shape of one's life is that it ends in death. Regarding death and life, Hurka comments further that, though we can't stop death from depriving us of more good, we can make it true eternally that we lived a life containing some desirable selection of the best things in life.
The numerous views and opinions put forth, with obvious philosophical brilliance, by Hurka may not be shared unequivocally by other great thinkers.
But clearly, Hurka possesses an intellectually brilliant mind.
And the philosophically intense pondering of Hurka will very likely intrigue, and greatly edify, a vast expanse of readers.
© 2016 Leo Uzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare. Twitter @LeoUzych